Authors: Julia Alvarez
Tags: #General Fiction
In the Name
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
This book is for you
Â¿QuÃ© es Patria? Â¿Sabes acaso
lo que preguntas, mi amor?
What is a homeland? Do you know,
my love, what you are asking?
HE STANDS BY THE
door, a tall, elegant woman with a soft brown color to her skin (southern Italian? a Mediterranean Jew? a light-skinned negro woman who has been allowed to pass by virtue of her advanced degrees?), and reviews the empty rooms that have served as home for the last eighteen years.
Now in the full of June, the attic is hot. Years back, when she earned tenure, the dean offered her a more modern apartment, nearer to the campus. But she refused. She has always loved attics, their secretiveness, their niches and nooks, where those never quite at home in the house can hide. And this one has wonderful light. Shafts of sunlight swarm with dust motes, as if the air were coming alive.
It is time for fresh blood in this old house. On the second floor, right below her, Vivian Lafleur from the Music Department is getting on in years and going a bit deaf, too. Every year the piano gets more fortissimo, her foot heavy on the pedal. Her older sister, Dot, has already retired from Admissions and moved in with her “baby” sister. “Come quickly, Viv,” she sometimes hollers from her bedroom. The music stops. Could this be it for Dot? On the ground floor, Florence from History has been called back from her retirement after the young medievalist from Yale stumbled into a manhole and broke her ankle. “I'm so grateful.” Flo cornered her one day downstairs by their mailboxes. “I was beginning to go batty in that cottage in Maine.”
She herself is worried about the emptiness that lies ahead. Childless and motherless, she is a bead unstrung from the necklace of the generations. All she leaves behind here are a few close colleagues, also about to retire, and her students, those young immortals with, she hopes, the Spanish subjunctive filed away in their heads.
She must not let herself get morbid. It is 1960. In Cuba, Castro and his bearded boys are saying alarming, wonderful things about the new patria they are creating. The Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet last year on a yak with the Chinese at his heels, has issued a statement: One must love one's enemies, or else all is lost. (But you have lost everything, she thinks.) This winter she read of an expedition to Antarctica led by Vivian Fuchs. Sir Vivian has asked the world to agree not to dump its nuclear waste there. (Why dump it anywhere? Camila wonders.) But these are positive signs, she reminds herself, positive signs. It is not a new habit of hers: these efforts to rouse herself from a depressive turn of mind she inherited from her mother. Of course, sometimes the bigger picture is rather grim. So? Use your subjunctive (she reminds herself). Make a wish.
Contrary to possibility, contrary to fact
OST OF HER THINGS
have already been sent ahead, several trunks and boxes, years of accumulation, sorted with her friend Marion's help, down to the essentials. She is taking only her suitcase and the trunk of her mother's papers and poems carried down just now by the school grounds crew to the waiting car. To think that only a few months ago, she was consulting those poems for signs! She smiles at the easy gimmick she thought would resolve the big question in her life. Now, playfully, she imagines the many lives she has lived as captioned by the title of one or another of her mother's poems. How should this new life be titled? “Faith in the Future”? “The Arrival of Winter”? or (why not?) “Love and Yearning”?
The horn honks again. It will probably be titled “Ruins” if she doesn't get downstairs soon! Marion is impatient to go, red-faced and swearing, jerking the steering wheel as she turns the car around. “Lady driver,” one of the men mutters under his breath.
Marion and Les, her new husband, have flown up to help with the move. (Marion's companion of ten years finally proposed marriage.) Now the two best friends will head down to Florida in a rental car. Les has already been deposited (Marion's verb) in New Hampshire at his daughter's door, so that Marion and Camila can have this last trip together. All the way down to Baltimore and Jacksonville and on to Key West before she boards her ferry to Havana, Marion will try talking her out of her plans.
“Everyone who is anyone is getting out.”
“Well then, I'll have no problem. âI'm NobodyâWho are you?'” She loves to quote Miss Dickinson, whose home she once visited, whose fierce talent reminds her of her own mother's. Emily Dickinson is to the United States of America as SalomÃ© UreÃ±a is to the Dominican Republicâsomething like that. One of her niecesâis it Lupe?âloves those analogies in the game books Camila takes them when she goes to visit. But she herself always feels nervous when she is asked to put things exactly where they belong. Look at my life, she thinks, hither and yon, hither and yon.
But nowâ“Shall we have a drumroll, shall we blow the trumpet, and pipe a ditty on the flute?” Marion teasesâshe is heading home, or as close to home as she can get. Trujillo has made her own country an impossible choice. Perhaps it will all turn out well, perhaps, perhaps.
“You are not nobody, Camila,” her friend scolds. “Don't be modest now!” Marion loves to brag. She is from the midwestern part of the country, and so she is easily impressed by somebodies, especially when they come from either coast or from foreign countries. (“Camila's mother was a famous poet.” “Her father was president.” “Her brother was the Norton Lecturer at Harvard.”)
Perhaps Marion thinks that such reflected importance will stem the tide of prejudice that often falls on the foreign and colored in this country. She should know better. How can Marion forget the cross burning on her front lawn that long ago summer Camila visited the Reed family in North Dakota?
“You need a hand with anything else, Miss Henry?” one of the burly janitorial crew calls up. Her name is HenrÃquez (“accent on the
”), she has told them more than once, and they have repeated her name slowly, but the next time she requires their assistance, they have forgotten. Miss Henry, Miss Henriette.
Beyond them on College Street, in their pastel shirtwaist dresses, a group of young graduates hurries by on the way to some last gathering. They look like blossoms released from their stems.
One of them turns suddenly, a hand at her brow, shielding her eyes from the sun, a flag of red hair. “Hasta luego, Profesora,” she calls out to the flashing attic windows.
She couldn't possibly see me, the professor is thinking. I am already gone from this place.
EFORE SHE LEAVES, SHE
makes the sign of the crossâan old habit she has not been able to shake since her mother's death sixty-three years ago.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of my mother, SalomÃ©
Her aunt Ramona, her mother's only sister, taught her to do this. Dear old Mon, round and brown with a knot of black hair on top of her head, a Dominican Buddha but with none of the bodhisattva's calm. Mon was more superstitious than religious and more cranky than anything else. Back then, it was a habit to kiss each parent's hand and ask their blessing before leaving the house.
La bendiciÃ³n, MamÃ¡. La bendiciÃ³n, PapÃ¡
(The American girls made faces in class when she told them about this old tradition. “What a drag,” the plump, freckled girl
from Cooperstown said, lifting one corner of her mouth as if the old-world practice had a bad smell.)
When her mother died, Mon thought up this way for her to ask for SalomÃ©'s blessing. To summon strength from a fading memory that every year became less and less real until all that was left of her mother was the story of her mother.
Sometimes the phrase is part prayer, part curseâas now when she hears the loud, rude honk from down below and mutters it under her breath. Marion will be the death of Dot yet. The two sisters have always been kind to their quiet upstairs neighbor, that condescending kindness of natives toward foreigners who are not frightening. Dot knits her awful matching accessories every winter that she must wear once in a while to show her appreciation.
Another loud honk, then the call, “Hey Cam! Did you have a coronary up there or what?” She peers down from the back window and waves to her friend that she will be right down. Marion stands beside her rental car, a Caribe turquoise Oldsmobile. They have debated the color. (She is from the Caribbean, and she has never seen that color blue, she argues. But the manual Marion whipped out from the glove compartment did say
.) With her hands at her hips, her baggy trousers, and paisley scarf tied around her neck (can she really be from North Dakota?), Marion could be the drama coach at the college, barking at the girls up on the stage. Years of teaching physical education have kept Marion fit and trim, and her hardy midwestern genes have done the rest. She is warm-hearted and showy, kicking up a storm wherever she goes. “Are you Spanish, too?” people often ask, and with her dark hair and bright eyes Marion could pass, though her skin is so pale that Camila's father often worried that she might be anemic or consumptive.
They have lived through so much, some of which is best left buried in the past, especially now that Marion is a respectable married lady. (“I don't know about the respectable,” Marion
laughs.) In her politics, however, Marion is as conservative as her recently acquired husband, Lesley Richards III, whose perennial tan gives him a shellacked look, as if he were being preserved for posterity. He is rich and alcoholic and riddled with ailments.
She should not think so unkindly.
By the door hangs the chart her student helper drew up when they were sorting through the family trunks. Camila found the scrap of paper when she was cleaning up, no doubt inadvertently left behind. She was so amused by this young girl's vision of her life, she tacked it up on her bulletin board. She considers taking it down, then decides to leave this curious memento for the next tenant to ponder.